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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Smarter, not Stronger

More from the never-ending discussion of why women don’t make more big-budget/big box office films: David posted on The Hot Blog about being surprised that Punisher: War Zone is directed by a “chick” and posits that more women should break into Hollywood by making guy-centric action flicks.
I don’t particularly agree with him on this, but it’s not the first time someone has suggested that women would do better in Hollywood by, well, being more like men, and it won’t be the last. Hey ladies, want to make it big in Hollywood? Blow more shit up in your films! Someone should have gotten the memo to Kelly Reichardt that she should have given Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy a big-ass gun to go around that small Oregon town shooting everyone who didn’t help her, starting with that kid who turned her in for shoplifting. And perhaps tossed in a couple scenes of Williams getting caught in a rainstorm bra-less in a white t-shirt, or leaning alluringly over her broken-down car, because what we need more of is smart women being objectified in movies. Yeah, that would have made Wendy and Lucy a hell of a film.

Meanwhile, over on Women & Hollywood, Melissa Silverstein posted a while back about attending a meeting of women playwrights with “high level creative personnel in the NY theater business” to talk about parity. Silverstein linked in her writeup to the full text of the introduction read at the meeting by Julia Jordan, which I found interesting and relevant in several key points that also relate to women and film.
First, Jordan points out that women devalue women’s work as much as men do, which I think is largely true overall, as least as it relates to film, but that statement begs the question: why — and is it because the work is made by women, or because the work created by women is objectively not as good overall at reaching a broader audience? Jordan gets down to the meat of the whys and wherefores of her arguments about inequity later in her introduction, raising some pertinent issues:
1) that “There is talk of history and a male cannon that crowds the stages and creates a greater appearance of inequality than is actually the case;”
2) “women’s supposed lack of aggressiveness or productivity;” and
3) “the idea that women are receptive to male stories( as they have been taught all their lives to appreciate them,) but that men are resistant to the stories of women.”
All of these points could be said to apply just as well to a discussion of women and film (and have, in fact, been issues raised in numerous festival panels on this topic). They’re valid enough as talking points, but again, they don’t delve deeply enough into the underlying truths beneath these perceptions.
Do women devalue the work of other women? Well, yes, when it doesn’t resonate for them, or they think it’s pointless, or silly, or for whatever other reason isn’t of merit. Women also devalue the work of men when they think it’s crap, but that doesn’t mean that a woman who doesn’t like a particular film directed by a man has it out for men in general, and neither does it stand to reason that if a woman (or even a whole pack of them) don’t like a femme-directed work, that it’s necessarily about the gender of the writer or director -although one could further devolve the argument into a greater discussion of why women directors don’t make more films that do appeal broadly to women, or perhaps figure out a way to somehow study whether they would respond differently to the same works in a gender-and-identity-blind study.
The problem with diving deeper into that argument, though, is if you look at the box office numbers — which films women dig into their pocketbooks and actually go to — what do you see? The three biggest box office numbers for femme-centric films this year are Sex and the City, Mamma Mia! and Twilight — all films that previously had solid femme followings for the material from which they were adapted. And you could argue that all three of those films are largely tripe — and you wouldn’t be entirely incorrect in being dismissive of their content — but if the three big box office draws for female audiences were largely, well, not what the intelligentsia would consider great films — what does that say, realistically, about the female audience and the types of films they will get out and see? And are we not, as a gender group, largely getting exactly what we pay for?
I wrote recently about the lack of femme-directed films in the running for Best Picture in the Oscar race — a field that’s crowded, this year, with male-directed films. Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, by far one of the finest films I’ve seen all year, has been critically lauded and played well on the fest circuit. It released back in August, and as of now has a total domestic take of just over $2.2 million. Which isn’t a bad take for a little indie film, but compare that to the takes of Sex and the City, Mamma Mia! and Twilight — $152.6 million, $143.8 million and $119.7 million, respectively. Wendy and Lucy, another outstanding femme-directed film of note this year, will be a huge success if it brings in even close to what Frozen River has when it opens later this month. If you were a studio exec — male or female — and your job depended upon having to choose which films to greenlight that are likely to be financially successful, you might think that any female-targeted films you’re pondering would be a better bet if they lean more toward the banal and less toward the riveting and smart. That’s the reality.
Jordan’s probably right when she argues that women are more likely to appreciate male-centric stories than the other way around, but are women really trained to be more appreciative (or at least more tolerant) of “dick flicks” than guys are to sit through a “chick flick,” or is there a grain of truth to the assertion that films made by and for women tend to me more talky, more about relationships, and play more to feminine emotional sensibilities generally, and therefore don’t appeal to the way in which a lot of guys tend to communicate? How many times in our relationships with men have we as women watched our guys eyes blur over with boredom (or witnessed a moment of panic flitter beneath the surface) when we say the words, “Honey, can we talk?”
Women are different from men — in the way we think, in the way we act and react, in the way in which we approach our relationships. And I sure wouldn’t want to live in some androgynous society where the lines between women and men are blurred.
Jordan talks about how other institutions, most notably major U.S. orchestras and the American Economic review have instituted “blind” audition and submission policies to prevent gender bias, and how studies of The American Psychology Association and the Swedish Medical Research Council have revealed gender bias — from both women and men — in rating the quality of men’s and women’s work, when the gender of the person being evaluated was known. There are plenty of studies out there to back the reality of gender bias, but the question is, how do we apply that knowledge to the film business, in a realistic way? You could, perhaps, get away something resembling gender blindness with regard to script reviews — just blind out the name of the screenwriter, period, and evaluate the scripts purely on merit — but it would be rather more difficult to do away with the problem of gender bias when it comes to how studios choose directors — how could you? And the truth is, I don’t like the films I’ve liked this year because they were directed by men; I like them because they are good films, period.
When it comes down to it, much as we might like to live in a world where all these issues would dissipate if we just talk enough about them to the men who still, largely, control the cash registers, the truth is, at least in part, that things are just not going to change for women and film until there’s a major shift in the way the majority of women in the real world think about movies. Most of the women I know in my non-film business life do not know or care whether a woman or man has directed a particular film. Very. often, they don’t make decisions about what films they’re interested in seeing based on how smartly it’s directed, how nuanced its acting, how brilliantly it was written — but on how “fun” it looks.
Almost every woman of my acquaintance was excited about Sex and the City and Mamma Mia!, and even Twilight. I’d be willing to bet that most of them had never heard about Frozen River or Wendy and Lucy, and when I’ve talked about those films, or even about Anne Hathaway’s stunning performance in Rachel Getting Married, the reactions I generally get from them run along the lines of “Uh, two women transporting illegals across a river? No, thanks.” Or “A homeless girl and her dog? That sounds … depressing.” Or “Gee, I really liked Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, but that new one seems really dark. But hey, have you seen the ads for that new bride one she’s in with Kate Hudson? Now THAT one looks good!”
I wish I was making any of that up, but I’m not. And I get where David was going with his thoughts on women making action flicks, but I’m really loathe to say that the way for women to make it to the same level as men in Hollywood is to simply become more like them, because the male-centric films that get the big box office bucks also tend toward the banal side of the equation, while the more intelligent films just do … okay. And yet there are still more men who get to make the smaller, smart, flicks that populate the arthouse ghetto as well. I don’t really want to see more women — or men, for that matter — making more blow-’em-up action flicks, I just want to see smarter films in general appeal more to a broader segment of the population. We need to raise the bar overall for the expectation of what movies can and should be — smarter, better … not just stronger, bigger, more action-packed. Mostly mindless entertainment fare should be the occasional dessert or snack, not the main course. And changing the expectations of the movie-going public around what makes a good film, well, that’s going to take a hell of a lot more work that gender-blind studies or more chicks directing action flicks.

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5 Responses to “Smarter, not Stronger”

  1. Kim-
    Thanks for the incredibly thoughtful piece. As we’ve discussed this is a complex issue and I for one feel that women should be able to make as many smash em up movies that may or may not suck as much as the guys do. But if you look at the other side of the equation we find that many men are able to make smaller movies about women and other tough subjects without any issue or gender implications like for example Rachel Getting Married. Why do we think that it’s such a revelation when a woman is interested in blowing shit up? Is it just because we think that women should be nurturing and that it makes people uncomfortable when women want to make action flicks. There are women who want to do those and many who do not. It’s because there are so few opportunities to do those types of flicks that it causes people to pause.
    Think about when Hillary Clinton started her campaign. They were so focused on proving that a woman could be commander in chief and be tough enough that she lost her humanity along the way.
    The whole point to be is that we need more women doing all kinds of jobs in all industries so that when a Lexi Alexander directs a film like Punisher (which I have less than no interest in seeing and most people seeing it could probably care less that a woman directed it) it’s no big deal.
    On another front- I really can’t stop thinking about Julia Jordan’s description of how orchestras now audition potential new members. Orchestras have achieved gender parity because they took away any option of bias by making the audition gender blind. I am fascinated by that and would love to see agencies send scripts to studios with the cover page at the end (if at all) so that when they read the scripts they don’t know who wrote them. But until the “studios” want scripts about women we are just out of luck on that front. I don’t think the successes of Mamma Mia and Sex and the City will help us with original films about women. Do you?

  2. leahnz says:

    excellent piece, kim, well conceived and written.
    and melissa, your reply also mirrors many of my own thoughts on the issue. (may i ask, how exactly have orchestras made the audition process gender blind, do musicians audition behind a curtain or something? i’m not being flip, i’m genuinely curious at to how it’s works, i’m unfamiliar with the process.)
    the film industry desperately needs competent female directors who can handle all manner of material with guts, creativity and flair, as well as more female screenwriters to create gripping, interesting stories with roles for women that represent us in all our flawed, complex glory, and not how male screenwriters THINK women should or would behave (because they so often don’t have a clue). the directing/screenwriting issues go hand in hand, imho.
    whenever this topic comes up, my mind always drifts back to lt. ellen ripley: as ridley scott tells it, dan o’bannon originally wrote the role of ripley in ‘alien’ for a man, and scott decided he wanted a woman in the part instead. but the studio balked at the idea of having to have the entire script re-written for a woman, and scott basically said, ‘don’t be an ass, just leave it as it is, it’s fine’, and the rest, or course, is cinema history.

  3. Melissa Silverstein says:

    They do audition behind a curtain and there is carpeting so that no one can hear if they wear heel or not. Brilliant. I don’t know why other industries don’t emulate it.

  4. leahnz says:

    thanks, melissa, fascinating…but more disturbing, really, to think that sexism is that deeply embedded in the subconscious that just seeing a musician is female might cause her performance to be judged more harshly or by different standards (or that she just plain couldn’t be AS GOOD as a male musician). wow.

  5. hcat says:

    Loved the article. The one thing is that you seem to be holding the female audience to a higher standard than the male audience.
    The mainstream audience is always willing to choose escapism over art and there is no reason to expect women to make better choices than men when it comes to choosing something challenging over something fun. Making disposable entertainment is the main function of the film industry and equality is acheived when filmakers like Nancy Myers can make a piece of crap that makes as much coin as a male filmmakers piece of crap. There is no standard by which Sex and the City is a great movie but after seeing Get Smart, Tropic Thunder and Step Brothers, SATC is unfortunatly looking like the funniest (and easily the most mature) comedy of the summer.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon